You’re probably never more than 24 hours away from hearing a Sugarhill Gang song. Even 10 minutes before a conference call with Wonder Mike, Master Gee, Hen Dogg and DJ TDynsaty, their song Apache is ear-worming its way into my brain via an ad for some insurance site on TV.
Nearly 40 years after the New Jersey crew scored the first big hip-hop single Rapper’s Delight, they say they’ve no problem dining out on nostalgia.
“It’s a very cool feeling to have the music woven into the world. and regular everyday lifestyle, it’s pretty neat,” says original member Master Gee, with MC Hen Dogg adding: “I really still don’t get used to it.”
Sugarhill Gang weren’t the first crew of MCs to rap over breaks and cut-up soul and funk records. As New Jersey kids in the 70s, they were chasing after the Bronx and Manhattan gangs, with their early rap scene running parallel on the streets of Jersey.
But Wonder Mike and Master Gee, along with late founding member Big Bank Hank, beat New York OGs like Grandmaster Flash, Cool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa to score a hip-hop home run with Rapper’s Delight, the first big commercial rap single, bouncing along on Chic’s Good Times bassline and party rhymes.
And even in light of Chic’s huge live resurgence over the last few years, Nile Rodgers still has to admit that the iconic bassline will now forever be locked into that famous cowbell break and Wonder Mike introducing rap music to the charts with the line: “I said-a hip, hop, the hippie to the hip-hop-a, you don’t stop the rock”.
It’s a fairly rudimentary opening gambit, but Mike adds: “The next bit I got the idea from the TV show The Outer Limits, you know ‘this is not a test’, I’m explaining that ‘I’m rappin’ to the beat’. When I wrote that part I knew rap was big in New York, New Jersey, maybe Connecticut. If this record was gonna be heard outside these areas I wanted to explain to people what we were doing, to explain what was happening. I was saying rap music is for us all, ‘to the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and the yellow’.”
The story of hip-hop’s first smash hit is one of flukes and near-misses. Rap had been emerging on the streets in block parties, with DJs spinning records and MCs staging battles and rhyming with the bravado that’s been carried through to every strand of hip-hop since.
In the late 70s rap was very much a street art that maybe stretched to dance halls or clubs, but singer, producer and music industry figure Sylvia Robinson was the shrewdest player of the era, a svengali from the sidelines. Something pinged after she stumbled upon a block party and she later recalled in an interview: “[I had an idea to] ‘Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing you ever heard. I didn’t even know you called it rap.”
She came up with the name Sugar Hill Records before the band was picked, with the label named after the Harlem neighbourhood. She auditioned Master Gee in the back of a car after picking him up outside a pizza joint where Hank worked, covered in dough.
Master Gee recalls: “They were gonna use one guy who was in a McDonald’s in front of the pizza joint. That guy turned them down so they made a U-turn and went to the pizza parlour because they heard Hank was pretty good.
“So while they were auditioning him I was walking down the street with a friend of mine. He saw them, knew who they were and told them, ‘You gotta listen to my friend’, so I got in the back of the car.
“A few days later we went up to sylvia’s home, and Mike was there as well. The whole night we thought there was only gonna be one person and we were auditioning on the spot.
After it Mike said he hadn’t made such a good impression so started rapping again. At the end of that, Sylvia said something like, ‘Three is my favourite number — I think I’m gonna put the three of you together, then we came to the studio to record.”
Posse cuts featuring various MCs and mic passes are the backbone of live hip-hop and recorded cuts, but when the trio went to the studio with Robinson and the studio session musicians, they lost track and treated it like a live show, which led to the track’s famous extended running time of close to 15 minutes – a disaster when Robinson tried to get the track signed initially.
“We didn’t know better, we didn’t know about takes or anything,” says Master Gee. “So when they pressed record we were under the impression we would continue to go, we thought that’s what we had to do. Mike was first, Hank was second and I was third. In a regular party situation we called it passing the mic. That’s where the ‘1,2,3,4, tell me Wonder Mike what are you waiting for…’ that’s a pass. And ‘Master Gee, my mellow, it’s on you’, that’s a cue to let the next person know you were to finish and to take over.
“So we made the first three raps, I passed it back to Mike, Mike passed it to Hank, Hank passed it to me, I passed it back to Mike, we just kept going. We were in there in the booth jamming and the band were in the studio jamming.
“Wonder Mike cuts in: “We could’ve made a four-hour record, we only cut that 15 minutes record because the tape ran out. That’s what we were doing in dance halls and people’s basements — we would come to a party and there’d be a handful of guys and one person would get the mic and then keep passing and so on… it was the same sort of idea only we were being recorded.”
The no-budget one-take recording is one of the most profitable 15 minutes of tape in history. Rapper’s Delight sold eight million copies, propelled rap out of the New York boroughs, and in the first verse it even gave ‘hip-hop’ a name outside of the New York inner circle. Some 37 years on, the track is one of those dancefloor tracks you’re seemingly born knowing. To date it’s their only huge US hit, even though Apache and 8th Wonder were hits in Europe.
Given the boyband nature of Sugarhill’s creation, and the fact they leapfrogged over other legendary MCs and DJs, it meant there was a lot of initial sniffiness on the street — so the band had to deal with that, as well as the wider mainstream which dismissed hip-hop as a daft novelty.
Master Gee adds: “Well it definitely started in New York in the Bronx and Manhattan, so there was a bit of a rift… we have to take you back.
“I heard about rap through word of mouth. The fact that we had our own scene, the idea of coming from New Jersey and the fact that it wasn’t coming from New York, caused a little bit of a rift between people. But once we got around each other and performing together and they saw that we were generally entitled to perform and write and record, people understood that we were legitimate.”
It’s all in the past though. Sugarhill have transcended the rivalry, and Wonder Mike says it’s a mirror of rap beefs that have been going on for decades.
“It was just a healthy rivalry really, it’s better than beating each other’s brains out,” he says. “Back when we started, if you lost a battle you might lose your equipment for the night, but nothing bad.”
It’s been a long time since the Sugarhill Gang fought for legitimacy, but they reckon it’s been sealed with their name of the Art of Rap tour, headed by Ice-T and featuring Public Enemy, Mobb Deep, Naughty By Nature, Melle Mel, EPMD, MC Lyte and Kurtis Blow.
“It’s very cool, we all have grown,” says Master Gee. “Many people on that tour have known us our whole history. It’s like going on a family reunion of people but doing it in front of thousands of people. everybody has their place in this music, we respect each other’s talents, at this point everybody knows everybody.”
Even though Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Hen Dogg namedrop Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rick Ross and Kanye as new inspirations, they’ve no problem admitting that hip-hop “is still music for young people”.
“Hip-hop is their form of expression, like rock was before us,” Master Gee says. “But it doesn’t mean we just get forgotten about. When we first started Europe and America was like being in two different planets but now everything is going down in real time. If we cut a record today, somebody is getting it in Ireland today.
“Before the internet, if you were still not current you had to explain who you were. Now somebody can say, ‘This guy’s Master Gee, he’s in Sugarhill. And even if you don’t know me you can get your phone and in a minute pull up photos, videos, get a whole history in 30 seconds.”
It would take more than 30 seconds to get a handle on the last decade of the band, with a long-running legal battle that saw Master Gee and Wonder Mike try to wrestle the Sugarhill name back off Sylvia Robinson’s son Joey Robinson Jr, the owner of Sugarhill Records, even leading to the documentary I Want My Name Back.
After the death of Joey in 2015 they did just that, and even though it’s too dense a topic to discuss on a four-way slightly muffled conference call, Master Gee assures me “It’s all good… absolutely.”
Hen Dogg gives it a “Hell yeah” in agreement before saying: “You have to realise that we’re all musicians at heart, we’re constantly in the studio, coming up with new ideas… new beats and grooves. And you see live… you better bring some popcorn, it’s gonna be a hell of a show.”
- Originally appeared in Irish Star